How To Steal A Million Dollars?

... as our money becomes completely electronic, new crimes will undoubtedly be committed which take advantage of the technology itself. Perhaps if we could imagine what crimes might happen, we could start to think about how to prevent them.

What financial crimes could be committed within a completely electronic marketplace?

Future of Money Design Award

On one level, there's no change to the basic ideas of monetary crime. You either target an individual or a bank, then fool them or force them to relieve them of their money. Recent hacks of BitCoin banks are no different to an old fashioned bank robbery. Exploit the security, then stuff your pockets.

So, one could dress up a historic heist in modern clothing - just like Star Wars is a dressed up version of Kurosawa's Samurai films. That's a bit dull though.

What we need is to think about how people will change when electronic money is the norm. (Of course, for many of us, paying by mobile or card is the new normal.)

Here are three of my thoughts which I may turn into competition entries.

Digital Chugging

Walking along the street, you see a homeless man begging. Rather than holding up a cup to catch coins, he has a sign with a QR code on it. "Help The Homeless - Scan Here".

Scanning the code pops up your phone's banking app. "Do you want to set up a regular £5 per month direct debit to the charity Shleter?"

Why! What a perfect idea! You thumb in the password to your online banking and bask in the smug glow of philanthropy. A few minutes later you get an email from the charity thanking you for your donation and, would you be interested in sharing some of your personal information with them?

The scam? Shleter isn't a charity. They're quietly draining you of your money and trying to get your personal information. By the time the banks tie together the various complaints, they've vanished with your cash.

Millionaire For A Night

One of your buddies wants to impress a girl. He thinks the easiest way to do this is to convince her that he's a very wealthy man. Because it's trivially easy to move your money round instantly, your group of friends hatch a cunning plan.

All ten of you will transfer your life-savings to your mate for one night only. You all set up a "push" transaction to happen at the same time. You watch him set up a "refund" transaction for, say, 3am. Long after his "riches" have helped his seduction.

It works! He shoots, he scores! And the money comes back to you.

Next week, he wants to try it again. It's so simple to set up rapid transactions that it's a no brainer to you.

Of course, come the next day, your money hasn't been refunded. Your friend has skipped town with all the money his friends pledged him.

Round Robin

Transactions can take place faster than ever. You no longer need to wait 2-5 working days for a payment, most are done within a couple of microseconds. Stores don't have to wait for a debit-card processor to aggregate the money paid to them and then withdraw it from your bank. If you need to pay a friend, the money leaves your account and is deposited in theirs instantly, ready for them to use.

You set yourself up with several bank accounts. You place £1,000 in each one. You tell the first account to pay its balance to the second account. You tell the second to pay to the third. Repeat until you tell the very last account to pay its balance into the first. Repeat the transactions every second.

You've now created a loop. A thousand pounds leaves each account just as a thousand pounds comes in to the account.

Or, at least, it would, if banks had bothered to update their critical infrastructure. Their clocks should be precisely aligned with each other - but DDoSing them at just the right time introduces a little bit of lag into their systems.

All of a sudden, according to their transactional records, there was a balance of two thousand pounds, which was then forwarded on, then one thousand pounds was deposited.

As the errors in the records build up, the amount of cash flowing through the ring increases. At precisely the right time, the money is simultaneously withdrawn.

While the banks try to reconcile thousands (or millions) of transactions with conflicting timestamps, you make off with your bounty.


As I said at the start, it's hard to think of an entirely new crime. Many of us use electronic banking and some variants of e-money and the frauds that are out there aren't radically different to what they were a hundred years ago.

The speed and ease with which we can will be able to move money will probably change our attitudes and that - I think - will have an unpredictable effect on society and criminals.

We could built digital currencies with certain safeguards, but that would destroy some of its perceived value. A banknote which lists everyone it has ever come in contact with is useful for traceability - but disastrous for privacy.

People, it seems, don't change. The dot-com bubble is no different from the tulip bubble, sticking a knife in someone's face will convince them to transfer money to you, scam artists will fleece the unwary.

Perhaps we should just give up on money altogether.

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